Flying Without Wings: The Martin SV-5/X-24 Lifting Bodies


The Martin Marietta X-24A Lifting Body [IMG: NASA]

With the exception of the Space Shuttle, the high altitude flights of the X-15 and SpaceshipOne, all other human spaceflights have used capsules for reentry followed by descent under parachute. The capsule approach was originally adopted as the quickest way to get humans into space, but even during the 1950s other approaches were being considered – designs that would allow returning spacecraft a greater deal of control during reentry and more accurate landings than the first generation capsules could offer. 

One line of thought centred around a vehicle that could generate lift via the shape of its body alone, a ‘lifting body’, and one of the most effective of the configurations that followed was the Martin SV-5/X-24.
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Less than gravity: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

The LLRV in Flight [IMG: NASA]
As NASA came to grips with the enormity of the task handed to them by President Kennedy in his May 1961 congressional address, the list of hurdles standing between America and a manned moon landing was long and formidable. Although NASA’s senior management felt confident that the task could be accomplished before the end of the decade, the finer details of how this would be achieved were far less certain.

Much of the initial focus of Project Apollo fell on the fundamental question of which mission mode should be employed. Some favoured Direct Ascent – launching one huge spaceship directly to the Moon where it would land before returning to the Earth. Others argued Earth Orbit Rendezvous was far more achievable given the limitations of American rocketry at the time. A third group suggested Lunar Orbit Rendezvous may hold significant advantages, but all three approaches had one thing in common – they would involve the controlled landing of a spaceship subject to the Moon’s reduced gravity and lack of atmosphere.
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Reagan’s Impossible Dream: The X-30 National Aerospace Plane

An artist’s impression of an early X-30 NASP design in flight [IMG: NASA]
On February 4th 1986, mere days after the United States had been shocked by the Challenger disaster, President Reagan rose before Congress to give his State of the Union Address. “We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station. And we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within 2 hours.” 

Reagan’s ‘Orient Express’ was not a new idea, but his announcement allowed a project from the Black world of classified budgets to step into the light. His words had been carefully chosen to  emphasise the potential for a new era of rapid transit for the general public but in reality the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) as the project was officially christened, was being designed with a very different role in mind and promised the fulfilment of a dream that stretched all the way back to the late 1950’s.
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